Thursday, October 19, 2017

Fake news and false "facts"

I recently received an email, forwarded by a neighbor, about Japan. The opening statements seemed to be true, but as the list of "interesting facts," as they were called, went on, I saw some surprising statements about Islam in Japan--things like Japan does not give permanent residency to Muslims, the Koran cannot be imported, etc.

Suspicious, I checked at once via Google and found two fact-based websites that were responding to the viral falsehoods about Japan and Islam being spread on the Internet and swallowed by those who like conspiracy theories, false news, and anything that suggests that immigration by anyone with an Arabic or Muslim background should be stopped here in the U.S., as (supposedly) in Japan. 

It turns out that the Greater Japan Islamic League was founded in 1930; today there are about 100,000 Muslims in that country who attend about 30-40 mosques, where one assumes the Koran is used. The University of Tokyo has a Department of Islamic Studies; experts there have denied the list of "facts" in the viral email.

So the email's "interesting facts" were not factual but propaganda of the worst kind since they deceive and distort truth with a malicious intent.  Without truth and trust, how can a society function?  This is the dilemma we face in the age of Trump, where fake news and lies proliferate.

I was glad to see in yesterday's New York Times an article about schools in Italy taking the lead in teaching children to recognize fake news.  The leader of this movement, Laura Boldrini, is quoted: "Fake news drips drops of poison into our daily web diet and we end up infected without even realizing it."  She wants kids in schools to be able to defend themselves from lies.

Bravo for Italy!  Even Pope Francis is dedicating World Communications Day to fake news.  Italy is not alone is try to grapple with the lies that sow confusion in the public sphere and undermine the credibility of powerful institutions, such as the US Government.

The battle against digital deceit has to begin by reminding everyone not to share unverified news; to ask for sources and evidence for statements that seem to be more opinion than fact; and to remember that the internet and social networks can be easily manipulated.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Guns in America: Is there hope?

In the wake of the horrific shooting recently in Las Vegas, in which a lone gunman was able to bring more than 20 weapons into his hotel room, the media have been full of desperate pleas to curb gun violence since those in Washington do nothing but lament.

America seems to be alone in the world in its gun culture; even Australia, which also has a frontier history of independent citizens, was able in time to pass laws that allowed the government to buy automatic and semi-automatic weapons and destroy them, followed by strict gun control laws. The result? a sharp drop in gun-related deaths. Obviously.

Why is America different?  Is our culture not amenable to change?  Is the NRA gun lobby so powerful that strong that lawmakers are afraid to make the changes that common sense demands?  Many experts say that the problem is not the Second Amendment ("the right to bear arms") but the gun lobby.  Yet consider how this country moved from a society in which smoking was widespread in the workplace and elsewhere to the present: in a matter of a few decades, smokers are now in the minority, shunned for polluting the atmosphere.  Somehow, the powerful tobacco lobby was forced by the courts to concede concessions to issues of health.

If smokers claimed freedom of expression as their legal right, they were defeated by the fear of cancer. Yet the gun owners who claim that their freedom under the Constitution is at risk with more control of handguns fail to admit what really is at issue: fear.

The fear of losing one's land, independence and freedom to the federal government is a very powerful culture force inbred in millions of white, male Americans, especially in rural and Western states. This has been exacerbated by the changes in society brought by the civil rights, gay rights, women's rights, and other movements since the 1960s.

Men are usually reluctant to admit how deep-seated their fear of the loss of the "security" that guns provide them is, and this fear seems stronger than any rational argument about the second amendment and the senseless killings made possible by the sale of weapons.  Politicians lack the courage to stand up to this powerful force, embodied in the National Rifle Association, which supports the lucrative gun manufacturing business.

So I am not sanguine about changing cultural attitudes toward guns, although I would like to think that the anti-smoking campaign offers an analogous solution.  Fear in this case is deep-seated, and apparently, sadly, tragically, neither more massacres nor rational arguments for gun control will change the minds of gun supporters.  Ours remains a violent society.

I hope I am wrong. I hope and pray that a commission of our former Presidents Clinton, Obama, and Bush, along with influential people like Michael Bloomberg, might put together the money and muscle for a long campaign that would limit the sale of assault weapons.  But it will be a long campaign. And the political establishment would fight it bitterly, fearful of losing their power.

How does trust gain power over fear?